Small-town movie theaters are things of the past, except in Cedarburg where volunteers help keep a preservation success story alive and entertaining families
The historic Rivoli Theatre in downtown Cedarburg got an exterior renovation in 2007 that included a glass-enclosed sidewalk ticket booth, new marquee and a black glass facade with white art-deco trim, recreating its 1930s grandeur. Now, it’s also a grand lady inside.
Gone are the ripped blue seats and wall coverings, replaced with comfortable red cloth seats in three widths and dramatic red-and-black acoustic walls with plush black carpeting down the aisles. The Rivoli Theatre is in good hands with projectionist Chris Hofland (left) and manager Jerry Voigt. Photo by Sam Arendt
The theater, which is run primarily by volunteers, closed for the renovation Nov. 28 and re-opened Dec. 16, just in time for the traditional Christmas film festival that ran Dec. 17 through Dec. 23.
Those who walked into the theater Dec. 17 to see “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were impressed with its new look, which was proudly shown off by Jerry and Alice Voigt of Cedarburg, who manage the theater. Even people not attending the movie stopped in to see the results.
Among the admirers is Chris Hofland of Grafton, a projectionist and one of the few paid employees. He’s seen the theater’s changes since it was a Marcus theater and he worked there as a teenager.
The theater has a special place in his heart and that of his wife Tiffany.
They met at the theater. That’s where he proposed to her and where he learned he was going to be a father.
When Tiffany arrived to see “Spider-Man III” with her family, the marquee read “Tiffany, will you marry me?”
“She was reading it like, ‘What is this?’ When she saw me on my knees, she knew what it was,” Hofland said.
“I also found out I was going to have a baby here. She planned to tell me at home, but sort of let it slip.”
Jerry Voigt said many births have been announced on the marquee or on the big screen
Hofland, who works in the cashier’s office at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, shows movies three to four times a week, handling the large film reels in much the same way it was done when he started working at the theater at age16.
“It’s an old projector and some of these parts are over 50 years old. In a few years, we’ll probably go all digital,” Hofland said.
The small projection room has digital and slide projectors to show local advertisements and previews — and occasionally the main feature.
Several years ago, shortly before the three-hour film “Australia” was to start, Jerry Voigt dropped the reel and the film unwound.
“I remembered it had just come out on DVD and ran to the store. We showed it five minutes late,” Hofland said.
It took him and Voigt eight hours to rewind the film the next day.
Two years ago, a digital version of “White Christmas” was being shown when it stopped midway through the movie.
“I was going by, saw the digital projector was on and flipped it off (because it’s normally off during the feature film),” Jerry Voigt said. “I’m walking down the stairs (from his office next to the projection room) and Chris is running madly upstairs. That’s why they don’t like me to be in the projection room.”
In the meantime, a group of Concordia students started singing, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and everyone joined in, Alice Voigt said.
“They had just finished the song when the movie started again. Everyone started clapping,” she said. “People still talk about it.”
The Rivoli shows only family films. R-rated and some PG-13 movies are banned. The popcorn is popped fresh in peanut-free oil so children with nut allergies can eat it. No credit cards are accepted, only cash or checks.
Four years ago, the Voigts decided to do a Christmas film festival, and it’s now a tradition.
Even though most of the holiday movies are shown on television, it is a different experience on the big screen, said Hofland, who saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time at the Rivoli.
Two-year-old twins Hunter and Samantha Rouen of Port Washington had their first theater experience Dec. 17 when their grandparents Carl and Laura Jette of Grafton decided “Rudolf” would be a fun experience for the children, the twins’ parents Jenny and Josh and their aunt and uncle Christine and Chris Jette of California.
“Sometimes, when they’re so young, they’re not used to the dark and get scared when the lights go out,” Voigt said. “They’re used to watching movies at home on TV, but it’s a different atmosphere here.”
Manning the concessions stand that day were volunteers Mark and Cory Repenshek of Cedarburg and their daughters Leah, 6, and Camory, 8. The girls are the right height for the candy counter. Leah helped her father with the popcorn, while Camory graduated to the soda machine and helped her mother with drinks.
Their father handled the money. The Voigts helped during the rush before the movie starts.
“We wanted to volunteer and when we found out we could bring the girls, it was wonderful. They love doing this,” Mrs. Repenshek said.
“Everybody is so nice,” her husband said. “They come here with the understanding that we may be a little slow.”
The family handles concessions about five times a year.
Jerry Voigt said he stopped counting the number of volunteers when it reached 1,000. They range in age from 5 to 90.
“Some aren’t active. Some go away to college and help when they’re home. Some are here every week,” he said.
There is a volunteer registration sheet at the entrance and new people sign up each week, Alice Voigt said.
She became involved when her husband embraced the Rivoli project after retiring from teaching seventh-grade mathematics and American history in the Mequon-Thiensville School District.
“We’re partners in his encore career,” Alice Voigt said. “I figured if he’s going to be gone, I better go with him. It works well.”
Jerry Voigt handles the theater management, including finances and scheduling volunteers and projectionists, while his wife handles theater rentals for corporate or private events. They choose the films together.
The theater, which Marcus planned to close, was purchased in 2006 by the Cedarburg Landmarks Preservation Society, which started a Revive Rivoli campaign to raise money to bring the theater back to its former glory and show family films.
“I didn’t intend to manage it. I offered to help the Preservation Society and knew none of the people there could get 130 volunteers in one month, and it just grew out of that,” Voigt said.
“We’re here whenever we can be, but with the people we have now, we don’t feel we have to be here all the time. It runs just as good when we’re not here.”
The theater is a bargain at $3.50 per ticket or $2 on Tuesdays. Show times are 7 p.m. nightly and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Visit www.rivoliofcedarburg.com or call 377-1010 for more information